Adria Arjona On Joining Star Wars, Stereotypes, and Becoming Friends With Fear

Thursday, Sep 22, 2022
Adria Arjona On Joining Star Wars, Stereotypes, and Becoming Friends With Fear

MARIE CLAIRE UKStarring in the highly anticipated Star Wars prequel, Andor, Adria Arjona is being touted as the new talent to watch. Here, she speaks to Lotte Jeffs about swerving the cult of celebrity and finding solace in nature
As a teenager, Adria Arjona sold merchandise at gigs. Her brother had a job helping to build the stage. No one attending those concerts – which were usually held in giant stadiums, full of tens of thousands of fans – would have known that the Guatemalan pop star they had come to see was, in fact, these children’s father. Indeed, while Ricardo Arjona is one of the most successful Latin American artists of all time, with more than 80 million records under his belt, growing up in the shadow of his fame has steeled Arjona for her own success as an actor. Now starring in the much-hyped Star Wars prequel series, Andor (streaming on Disney+ from September 21st), his insistence that she work hard and avoid the usual pitfalls of celebrity culture has gifted her a wisdom and self-awareness many take an entire career to develop.

“My dad did such a good job of hiding the fact that he was famous for so many years,” she says. “I never really understood how big of an impact he had on society. It wasn’t until later that I figured, ‘Wait, we’re not poor!’, because we lived a very humble, very easy life, and then all of a sudden I realised, ‘Holy shit, he’s famous. He can buy me a cell phone!’”

Arjona grew up in Mexico City, but was born in Puerto Rico, where her mother, Leslie Torres, is from. Living on a tour bus during her early years, Arjona describes her upbringing as “very carefree, wild, because everything was about the arts… then my dad started becoming more and more famous and life became about sheltering ourselves and protecting ourselves from a world that felt like everyone wanted a piece of my father.”

By the time she was 12, the family had moved to Miami, where Arjona attended a private school and had to quickly adjust to a very different lifestyle. “I think I was so afraid of who I could have become, but my dad would tell me to keep doing the art, the photography, the acting – those classes were my salvation throughout my high school years,” she says.

Today, we’re talking over Zoom from her home in LA and it strikes me that Arjona is incredibly easy to talk to: open, engaging and, despite being out-of-this-world gorgeous, far from intimidating. She’s wearing a white vest and chunky silver jewellery. There’s not a hint of makeup on her face and her naturally wavy hair tumbles just past her shoulders. Her voice is soft; her South American accent still proudly present. Even via a laptop screen she oozes charisma.

As a child, Arjona tells me she had sporadic passions. “I’d watch Ice Princess and then all I’d want to do for a month was ice skate. I would dream about it; I would practise it; I would beg my parents for a class; I would do anything that I could to get on the ice. And then I would realise that I sucked and go, ‘I don’t want to do this’.” For a brief time she wanted to be a teacher and locked herself in a closet where she’d pretend the boots were her students. Next, she wanted to be a police officer, then a doctor. “I think at one point it occurred to me that I might be an actress, because I was so fascinated by learning certain abilities, but the second that I got a handle on them, I was ready to move on.” It perfectly sums up what she does now: “I get to play a doctor and I research and learn and I memorise it in my body, but I can’t actually do surgery – nor do I want to! I guess I’m incredibly curious.”

Following her intuition, Arjona studied performing arts in New York and initially only wanted to do theatre, until she realised that would mean “I was going to be broke forever”. Her first role was on a police drama and it was just as she was offered a recurring part on the second season that she manifested her big break: “I had watched season one of True Detective and I remember just believing deeply that I was going to be on it.” She turned down the job she’d been offered and wiggled her way into getting an audition for season two of True Detective instead. She got the part. It was a life-changing moment that set a stellar trajectory in motion and saw her relocate to LA. Her career has since included roles in everything from a sleek remake of Father of the Bride and Marvel mega-hit Morbius, to indie drama Pussy Island and fantasy comedy series Good Omens.

The diversity is a conscious decision. “[As a Latina woman], I was very conscious of what people wanted to label me as… I knew what I didn’t have to be, so I started picking roles that were really quirky and weird and interesting, and shows that were different,” she says. “That was my way of saying I have control; if [non-white actresses] feed into [the stereotypes] even just a little bit, we’re screwed.”

Over time, the actor learned how to speak up for herself on set, too. “Men get to do it all the time,” she says. “I was always so shy of doing it because I didn’t want to be called difficult or a diva… but I also have ideas and my ideas are worth listening to. Whether they’re used [or not] doesn’t matter – they’re still worth listening to.”

It’s one of the reasons Arjona loves science fiction, a genre that allows her to explore different characters and worlds she wouldn’t necessarily be able to access due to industry stereotypes. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to play different kinds of women and I really enjoy the whole fantasy element of it; the imagination work that you have to get into,” she says. “I actually enjoy not understanding exactly what I’m doing at all times because it keeps me on my toes. And it’s nerve wracking. It’s exciting!”

In Andor, she plays Bix Caleen, the protagonist’s oldest friend and a risk-taking rebel with a big heart. “When you meet the [characters], you get the feeling that there’s so much history [between them]. You can sense that there was trust that’s been broken and rebuilt. And they have this insane chemistry and dynamic, which was so fun to play with [co-star] Diego Luna because he’s just so available as an actor. He’s so present”.

The scale of the project was vast compared to other sets she’s been on, with an entire city built to enable 360-degree filming. “You can run wherever you want; you can cut any single corner,” Arjona laughs. “I got to explore where [Bix is] from.” It’s a big role in an iconic franchise – a sentiment that wasn’t lost on Arjona, who tells me she initially tried to pretend it was just a regular role on a regular TV show to alleviate the pressure. “Cut to the first day on set when I just walked in and Star Wars was everywhere,” she laughs.

Filming also happened during the height of the pandemic, so cast members were kept apart and socialising was non-existent. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the atmosphere on set from being electric. “Everyone was so excited to be a part of this show that the second a director called cut, it became like a 12-year-old’s birthday party,” Arjona recalls. “Everyone’s going crazy about whether there’s a creature actor or some amazing prop – there was this incredible childlike energy.”

I wonder if she’s prepared for the level of obsession the Star Wars franchise generates? “I’m dying to meet the fans to be like, ‘It was good, right?’ But by the time it comes out, I’m going to be on another set, so I won’t really feel the impact of it as much. That’s been my trick – every time something big comes out, I go straight back to work. Then you’re not hearing about the hype [because] you’re so focused on another character. You’re so focused on another movie that you leave it behind.”

She’s not fazed by the inevitable increase in attention she’ll receive after the series airs, either, citing the example set by her father. “Fame is almost like the ocean,” she says thoughtfully. “You want to treat it with respect, you don’t want to fear it, but you also don’t want to feel too comfortable in it.” She mentions the stars of old Hollywood, like Elizabeth Taylor, who commanded a sense of glamorous mystery in an age before social media. “I’m not saying I want to create that magic – we’re living in very different times and you have to adapt – but I think privacy is so important. Having my own little world in my own little bubble [is important]. I keep my friends, partner and family really close to me, and then have this other persona for work.”

Today, she’s carved out a somewhat ‘normal’ life for herself in LA with her lawyer husband Edgardo Canales. And, thanks to what she calls her “secret weapon: my wild crazy hair”, she’s rarely recognised while out and about. She even recalls sitting next to someone recently on a plane who was watching Morbius and had no idea they were sat with one of its stars. “I was like, Jesus, that is so embarrassing! I was trying to cover my face so they didn’t realise,” she laughs.

Indeed, despite her high-profile career, Arjona says she’s an introvert. “I can do the extrovert thing, but I have a time limit. My partner can be at an event for five hours; I could be there for an hour and have to go. I love being by myself and I’m so sensitive. I give energy out like it’s candy and then I’m left depleted,” she adds. “I need time alone, especially when finishing a movie. I need to sit in bed and not talk.”

It’s a trait that’s carried into her personal life at times, too. “The majority of my friends have the biggest personalities. I guess it’s just coincidence, but my best girlfriends, even from childhood, have these huge personalities,” she says. “We sit down at dinner and I barely say a word and it’s the most amazing thing in the world.”

Indeed, the longer we talk more generally about anxiety and the need for personal space, the more Arjona opens up. “Sometimes you’re like, ‘I’m ready to be social’ and then you go out and you’re like, ‘Fuck, I’m not ready at all! I really don’t wanna.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m being weird’. It becomes this whole battle and it’s awful, especially when meeting new people. I definitely feel more comfortable around people I already know.”

I tell her it’s reassuring to hear that even a woman as beautiful, confident and accomplished as Arjona still suffers from the same social anxieties as many women. “Are you kidding me! I’m always getting in my head and worrying that I’m being awkward, or not following conversations because I zoned out for a second,” she says.

It sounds like her husband is her wingman; the outgoing yang to her sensitive yin. They met through a mutual friend, then married in 2019 at an intimate ceremony in Antigua Guatemala. “He’s really a brilliant mind, which kind of pisses me off because I can never tell him something new. He already knows literally everything.”

Arjona’s idea of a perfect night is staying in with friends, eating home-cooked food, drinking good tequila and playing board games. “Clubs are a no-go for me – I’ve been there, done that. A lot of the time everything ends up being at my house. I just invite everybody over and we have a little party and that’s kind of my favorite vibe. I’m never normally at home, so being in feels cosy and I get to wear sweatpants and do something cute with my make-up.”

I ask what brings her the greatest joy and, without missing a beat, she says it’s her family. “I would be nothing without them. No one makes me laugh more than my mom. I think she’s the funniest human in the world. The quirkiest, weirdest woman I’ve ever met. And she’s my mom – I’m so lucky to have her. I also have a 12-year-old brother and a 26-year-old brother and I can 100 percent be my silly, goofy self in front of them and they love it.”

Indeed, for all of her otherworldly roles, Arjona is happiest with her feet firmly on the ground – and won’t be transporting herself into the metaverse any time soon. “I think we need contact, we need human connection,” she states. She feels the same about cryptocurrency and NFTs (non-fungible token) – curious and open-minded about the way the world is evolving, but content that her passions remain decidedly more tangible for now. She’s similarly practical when discussing the future of the planet, and the role we all play in tackling the climate crisis. “So much is out of our control, but I think taking things into your own hands is important,” she says. “These things may seem minor, but being aware of the water that you’re wasting every day or the plastic that you’re consuming or the products that you’re buying – there are so many little things and tiny decisions that we can make on a daily basis that will create a larger impact.”

As for the future, she’s cautiously optimistic. “I think hope is the only thing that you can have. But in terms of the environment, I’m incredibly scared of the reaction of people around me, and their lack of awareness or lack of information or lack of care. We all share this planet. This is our home. We’re all roommates. And, essentially, we’re just being assholes to one another. I’ve even been questioning if I want to have my own kids over the past couple of years, and I’m not so sure.”

We start talking more about eco-anxiety and how she deals with fear generally. “I was in a weird plane situation once, and my mom has always taught me to look at my feet when I’m anxious and see where I am in that moment – it grounds you and brings you back into the present,” she says. “They had lost the autopilot and we had nowhere to land. It was the scariest situation; the flight attendant was crying. And I just remember looking at my feet and going, ‘I’m here, I’m still alive. This plane crashing hasn’t happened yet.’ It allowed me to be a better partner to the people around me, as they were also freaking out. When we landed, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I could have spent an hour giving my poor body a heart attack.’” Instead, she stayed calm and present – and survived.

Arjona certainly strikes me as someone you would gravitate towards in a crisis. She has a grounded, solid energy; a kind of anchor within herself that can keep those around her safe whatever storms may come. “I have an interesting relationship with fear,” she reflects. “You have to become friends with fear. You have to say, ‘You’re not real. I’m making you up. You’re in the future and I’m not in the future. I’m nowhere near that. I’m here.’”

With her career now set for interstellar take off, I have a feeling that however high Adria Arjona soars, she will always remain rooted to the place she calls home.